Monday, September 29, 2008

Aspies' and Autists' Gifts to Society


We Aspies and autists sometimes have to ask for accommodations. We shouldn't make a habit of it where we can avoid it, but there's no shame when it is necessary. Remember that accommodations, when they work best, help us contribute more to society and to those we love, work, live and play with.

On the other hand, the way we're wired also gives us unique strengths. Among other things:

  • We can often focus better. Among other things, that helps us become knowledgeable in important subjects, because we take the time and effort to know all about something.

  • We have good eyes for detail.

  • Because of our dedication and focus, we are often the most loyal friends and partners. According to at least one study, Aspies are much less likely to cheat than NTs. Consider this: we tend to be strictly rule-abiding, we tend to say what's on our mind so deception is very difficult for (most of) us, if we have any sense we're very happy and appreciative of our partners, we hate change and we may not be inclined to do the socializing necessary to rack up paramours!

  • We tend to especially make friends with people from or in other countries. For example, a good friend of mine from Washington, DC studies in Rome, partly because she believes that social errors would be minimized because she's an American. I have been a Russophile since high school, and have had multiple pen pals and acquaintances from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Communicating across cultures is not much more difficult for us than communicating within our own culture - and it may be less difficult because social slip-ups can be attributed to cultural differences rather than personal traits. (Also, we may have less to unlearn since we're not as deeply embedded in our own culture. We're used to taking an outsider's eye view of our own society.) Therefore, we tend to have a comparative advantage in global relations. We get to know people from other countries and cultures more easily.

  • Once we learn how to understand people better, we tend to empathize with outsiders and minorities. That flows partly from our intercultural abilities and partly from our own experiences.

  • For closely related reasons, we tend to be more self-aware, and able to ask for what we want in a relationship (of whatever type), and more aware of the other person's needs.

  • More broadly, we tend to be more articulate and have better developed verbal skills, at least in writing. We may be able to translate our skills to oral communication as well.

  • On the other side, we may be able to better take clear, honest, direct, specific but fair criticism. We don't automatically attach hostile undertones which aren't there, and we know the importance of giving the specific facts and telling the unvarnished truth even when it hurts.

  • We can find our own creative solutions to problems, because we're used to looking at things our own way, and we're used to persevering in the face of social disapproval and worse.

  • On the other hand, certain environments call on people to accept routines and be willing to do the same thing day in and day out. We thrive in such settings.

Of course, we should never discriminate against or scorn NTs simply because they tend to be less likely to do these things as well as we do. Everyone has different talents, and there are some things that NTs do especially well, too.

Indeed, it will help our efforts to adapt to an NT-dominated world if we think of what we're doing as accommodating them and their unique strengths and weaknesses, just as we ask they do for us. That approach may help us better understand their needs. As Stephen Covey points out in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to seek first to understand, then to be understood.

One Aspie I know, Eric, sees society as like a chessboard:

Pawns are Aspies, which move forward but attack diagonally, one square at a time (except for their first move when they can move two squares). As a result, they are stymied by obstacles that other pieces can brush aside (capture), but they offer unique solutions and "think outside the box".

The King is an Aspie with extensive social skills and other training and adapts well to NT society. It can move and capture pieces in any direction, but only one square at a time.

Rooks are NTs. They can move all around the board and capture pieces, but only along predetermined lines - ranks and files. They can be blindsided by diagonal approaches - including from pawns.

Bishops are autists. They can move all around the board and capture pieces too, but only in their own direction - diagonally. They add their own unique approaches, but have difficulty dealing well with conventional approaches - vertical and horizontal.

Knights are dogs and other pets. They don't have to conform to societal expectations on how to move, so they move in L-shaped patterns and jump over other pieces. Since knights are often first brought into play (or "developed") with pawns guarding them, it can be said that Aspies can have a rapport with animals in ways that others find more difficult.

That's certainly true in my case. Literally from the day I was born I've had dogs. I was the first child in my house, but from Day One I had to coexist with a big dog. That probably has much to do with why I'm very confident around dogs, understand their body language well - and make sure to act around them so they understand me well - and as a result have rarely been bitten.

Sometimes I wonder if to some extent AS is species-specific, so I'm an Aspie with humans but much more like an NT with dogs. Certainly many of us know folks who get along much better with animals than with people. Emily is exactly the reverse.

The Queen, which can move in all directions throughout the board, is God or any other higher power you may believe in.

What do you think?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Over at Backboards and Band-Aids, we've got an interesting discussion about public safety. EE, the host, recently saw a guy on her college campus offering free hugs. She just felt uneasy about the situation and called a campus police officer about him. He turned out, not surprisingly (at least to me), perfectly legit. He just wanted to, well, give free hugs to anyone who wanted one.

She's defended her actions, saying the guy just seemed creepy and that we should always trust our guts. Basically, better safe than sorry.

Now, EE's no crackpot, at least as far as I can tell. I'm not sure if she's old enough to drink, but she's already happily married with a baby on the way, in charge of EMS at a hospital and attending college on her own, studying pre-med. She's accomplished a heckuva lot more than a large majority of folks her age (when I was her age, I hadn't accomplished as much as she has either), and has my respect in general.

Reluctantly, I beg to differ with EE on this one. Simply appearing or acting "weird" is no reason at all to call the authorities.

People do indeed behave suspiciously, and sometimes their behavior needs to be checked out by police and maybe others. I myself have posted previously about how certain behaviors, however much you or I personally may mean no harm doing them, can definitely be cause for suspicion. My message has been - Put yourself in other people's shoes as much as possible, look to see if what you're doing could give reasonable people cause for concern, and if so minimize it or stop it as much as you possibly can.

For example, following a woman walking alone at night and approaching her in a dark, deserted area definitely gives her reason to wonder if you intend to beat or mug her - or worse.

Looking inside a parked car that isn't yours? Or multiple parked cars? Especially while acting furtively like you don't want to be seen doing it? Definitely suspicious.

A simple feeling that someone is "creepy" - or, as EE put it - weird? That's a horse of a different color. In a free society, people are going to do things and generally live their lives in ways that some other people are going to find creepy or weird. In fact, there are some free spirits, offbeat characters, call them what you want, who do this more often than others. Many other people find it much more comfortable to blend in and not do anything unusual - and of course that's their right - and so maybe nobody will feel they're being weird.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Anyone has a right to avoid anyone else for whatever reason. If you feel someone is weird and you don't want to be around him, feel free to give him a wide berth. If he approaches you or contacts you, tell him to get lost. If at that point he persists, go ahead and call in the law.

The point is, in a free society where we pride ourselves on respecting diversity, simply not understanding someone's behavior or feeling uncomfortable around someone isn't a good reason to call the cops. At that point, you cause other people inconvenience, upset and perhaps worse, and I think it's only fair to have something definite - what the police like to call "specific articulable facts" or "reasonable and articulable suspicion" - before you do.

It also gives the police something definite to investigate. If all they can say is "Someone felt uneasy about whatever you were doing," how is the person going to respond to that? S/he may not even know who felt that way, let alone why.

It certainly is important to minimize murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and other crimes. It's also important to keep our society a welcoming place for individuals and communities of all types, including - no, especially - those who like to do offbeat things and introduce the rest of us to new ways of living. I think the above approach is a good balance of our needs.

You might say "But what does this have to do with Aspies and autists in particular?" Good point. We have no specific reason to believe that the "free hugs guy" was an Aspie, for example. Plenty of NTs find themselves in such situations.

However, we Aspies and autists are disproportionately likely to be stigmatized as "weird" based on our mannerisms, staring or not holding eye contact, an uneasiness in our body language which simply means we feel we don't fit in but could be taken as sneakiness or even guilt, etc. We really need to help lead the fight for fairer treatment, because if we stand by and watch while NT nonconformists are hassled because of how they "make" people feel...well, what are we going to say when it happens to us?

What do you think?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Aspies: Let's Stick Together

Hello all,

One thing we Aspies and autists experience is isolation. That hurts not only emotionally, not also practically. Those of us who have few friends and have difficulty getting along with our immediate, physical neighbors can be in trouble sometimes, especially during a crisis when it helps to have someone check on your house, make sure your family is OK and the like.

You know about Lorin Neikirk, an Aspie leader in Houston (see the right-hand sidebars for links to her work). She and I are working to bring Aspies/autists and NTs together.

As you probably know, Hurricane Ike has done a number on Texas in general and Houston in particular. Lorin has felt it necessary to go to another city with her sons (one of whom is also an Aspie) and stay with family for a little while. Everyone is safe and sound. Naturally, she's concerned about the near future.

Maybe we - Aspies and NTs alike - can help.

If you'd be able, or know someone who might be able, to check on Lorin's house and the overall neighborhood, help salvage anything that can be salvaged, stop any further damage from occuring (such as by moving currently undamaged things away from possible rising waters, moving precarious or heavy objects to where they can't do any more damage, please let me know. I will pass that on to Lorin ASAP and then send you appropriate information.

Even if someone is only able to see how flooded and otherwise dangerous the neighborhood in general might still be, that would be a real blessing. Lorin will have to decide very soon how long to stay where she is, and thus among other things which schools her sons can go to for at least the time being.

I don't know whether, or to what extent, Lorin can pay for any help you can give her, but I have no doubt she will do whatever she can. If it's an issue, let me know and I will be happy to ask her.

Also, if you know anyone who could use some web/graphic design and marketing work done (especially over the Internet), please let me know and I will pass that on pronto. Lorin is a very good writer and marketer and a diligent entrepreneur. She'll be even more interested in opportunities to enable her and the rest of her family to get back on their feet.

Let's show we can help each other across the Internet. I don't know how many of you are Christians (Emily is a devout Catholic); in any case Jesus had a few things to say about who's a real neighbor and who isn't (Hint: it's behavior, not mailing address).

There's still a few prejudiced folks out there who think we Aspies are selfish sociopaths. Let's prove 'em wrong.

Thank you very much in advance!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Aspies and Relationships

Hello all,

Lorin Neikirk, Shanti Perez and I were on Blog Talk Radio Tuesday, discussing Aspies and romantic relationships. In fact, we Aspies can also use much of it to get along better with friends, co-workers and others.

Lorin had an excellent point: Yes, we Aspies need honest, detailed feedback because we have difficulty getting hints. With that comes the responsibility to make clear, in our words and actions, that we can take criticism well. If we're going to expect the other person to take the time and emotional effort to go outside his/her comfort zone and deliver honest criticisms - not personal attacks, but clear statements of the facts and his/her feelings about them - we need to reinforce that.

We don't need to agree with everything that's being said, but we do need to listen carefully, as well as we can, to both the details and the feelings behind them. For example, if your significant other says that you never show up on time, that may or may not be factually true. But what is true is that you're not showing up on time often enough to please him/her, and that is itself important.

As always, accommodation is a two-way street. If we expect people to go out of his/her way for us regarding our distinctive strengths and challenges, the least we can do is make it as easy as possible for them.

Shanti made an excellent point about body language. Body language is sometimes ambiguous and difficult to interpret correctly, especially for us Aspies. Different people may mean different things by the same gestures.

For example, one person's nervous fidgeting may mean "I don't like being around this person and I want to leave soon." Another person's same nervous fidgeting could mean "I really like this person and I want to be sure s/he likes me back and if s/he doesn't I'll feel so bad."

As I mentioned on the show, we need to do the best we can to interpret body language in light of what the person is also saying. Words are often more precise than body language and we can better directly responded to words, so verbal discussion can resolve ambiguities in nonverbal signals. It's best for us to put the other person on notice that we tend to rely on verbal discussion because of our weaknesses in reading nonverbal signals.

Of course, having done that we should always do whatever we can to understand what our partners are saying in the ways they find most comfortable.

Last but certainly not least, let's never assume our own moods, needs and desires are crystal-clear without describing them in so many words.

What do you think?

PS: This is our two-month blogoversary. I'd say we've done quite a bit in our short time here so far, and we've got more great stuff coming down the pike. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Breaking the Vicious Cycle, Part II

Let's take another look at rewards and punishments. Maybe we can set up a points system, give points for good behavior and tell Joe about things he can trade in his points for, like maybe an extra 15 or 30 minutes until lights out, an extra dessert and the like. Of course, demerits can be negative points. And there should be corresponding punishments if Joe's points go into the negative - earlier bedtime, no dessert, extra chores, etc.

Depending on how difficult Joe finds it to think abstractly, he may not be influenced so much by points and demerits. In that case, perhaps rewards and punishments themselves can be given on the spot - maybe an extra cookie or an easier task, or on the other hand a private or even public reprimand or a physically demanding task.

And yes, we need to expect Joe to accept punishment in silence, on pain of substantial increases in same. Once again, we can't stop him from feeling angry, however wrongly, but we can make him keep his feelings to himself.

That having been said, we must only punish anyone - NT or autist/Aspie - after we know with a reasonable degree of certainty what happened and who did it. It's only fair and decent to hear the accused's side of the story before making a final decision and imposing punishment. And if Joe has reasonable questions and seems to want to learn more about why he is being punished, even if his words sound a little hostile, we should take that as a teachable moment and give Joe all the explanation he needs.

On a related note, if and when a child - Joe or anyone else - asks for help with something, whether it's social skills, art, math or anything else, never, ever, ever express surprise, let alone skepticism, at such a smart child needing help. (I feel that any teacher copping an attitude toward any child - repeat, any child - who asks for help should be considered for formal discipline.) Give the help and also praise him/her for being mature enough to ask for it.

It is absolutely necessary for any child's development, let alone Joe's, that we give him the greatest possible encouragement to seek and accept help from the right grownups. This holds even more if, say, Joe has been an insufferable prig who has spent the school year lording his brains and book smarts over everyone else, including you.

This is a rare - some would say heaven-sent - opportunity to set the example, and explicitly encourage the kid to take a much better attitude toward others who know less than he does about something. If you're a Christian - like my wife - then you believe Jesus made it clear in the parable of the servants that as we receive mercy, we should also give mercy freely. In any case, I'm sure we all understand how important it is to set the example - and to show Joe how important it is to set the example for how he wants to be treated.

Also, I believe that most people, including autistic and Aspie children, secretly respect a superior who shows the strength and confidence to give them better treatment than they've given - and to make the contrast clear.

Punishments need to be swift and certain. Even a relatively light punishment can be effective if given - not threatened to be given, but actually given - right after the event. Rewards, on the other hand, can be tapered off as the habits are learned, but should be maintained for actions above and beyond the call of duty. Such a program definitely should be coupled with counseling - group and/or individual - to help Joe deal with his emotions and to help him connect what's happening to him with the lessons he's learning or not learning.

The beautiful part is, it turns the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. The earlier Joe starts acting graciously and getting along better with peers, teachers and others, the more things others will include him in, willingly, the more experience he'll have with people, the more accurate ideas he'll have about human nature in general and important situations in particular and the better his attitude toward society will be.

The idea is to break Joe down and then build him back up again. We teach him specific ways of getting along in the world, and then reward him when he shows he's learned them and punish him when he departs from them.

No, he's not going to like either getting with the program or being punished for not complying with rules he's been specifically taught. Trust me, though, he'll like un- or under-employment, poverty, loneliness and powerlessness for years and decades - maybe the rest of his life - a helluva lot less. Maybe, while this is going on, Joe will feel like this is the worst thing that ever happened to him. If it's done right, however, maybe one day he'll look back on it as the best thing that ever happened to him.

Now, it can't all be on Joe. There are mean bullies in pretty much every school. And some of the students can be bad, too. In another post in the near future I'll discuss what to do to make sure the human environment - teachers and fellow students - is as hospitable as possible to Joe's growth and learning, while protecting other people's rights and reasonable interests. A good deal of accommodation will have to be done for Joe, but not in a way that will make him think the world revolves around him.

Meanwhile, what do you think about this?

Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Part I

Mama Mara, who has two autistic sons including one in puberty, has an excellent question: how do we break the vicious cycle and enable the autist or Aspie to start to understand other people and vice versa? Or, how do we put the bell around the cat's neck?

Disclaimer: I have no formal training in education. My only college course in psychology was over 20 years ago. I have some experience, but not a whole lot, with children and teenagers - including those with IEPs (Individual Education Plans). I would especially appreciate any improvements anyone could offer to my thoughts to follow:

We need to focus (in large part) on the one thing we can remedy the most and the only thing which the autist or Aspie - let's call him Joe here - can control: his own behavior.

Specifically, we need to look at what Joe has been doing or not doing that reasonably offends others, especially peers and superiors (ie, teachers and other grownups).

This is going to involve some tough choices. I believe strongly in encouraging every individual to be who s/he is and to insist on being accepted for what s/he is. At the end of the day, though, there are certain minima which have to be met in order to be accepted. The geek or nerd may be much more likely to be bullied (by other kids and even by teachers) through no fault of his/her own, but if s/he is also behaving rudely or giving people good cause to be scared even if s/he isn't actually doing anything wrong, s/he needs to change.

Now let's go back to Joe. We need to teach him, explicitly and in so many words, what he needs to do and not do, at a bare minimum, to be respected. We can't count on osmosis and imitation in Joe's case like we can with most kids, because unlike NTs Joe isn't socializing and doesn't have the equipment to pull social cues out of the air. For example, we need to tell him "When you meet someone, you should always say 'Hello,' not just walk away. When talking to someone you should stand about a foot away from the person unless s/he asks you to come closer."

At the same time, I would establish a behavior modification system - rewards and punishments. Some - not all - kids respond better to praise and rewards than to reprimands and punishments. It is a rare kid indeed - NT or autist/Aspie - who never or rarely needs to be reprimanded or punished.

I might add that I am not opposed in principle to corporal punishment for anyone, NT or autist/Aspie, though we should exercise caution for the latter because of possible sensory issues. It's a matter of what works best for that individual child - that means what helps that child unlearn bad behavior and learn good behavior as quickly as possible.

(You may be interested to know that Dr. Benjamin Spock - yes, the child psychologist known for his permissive attitude - said in his landmark work Baby and Child Care that spanking can be a good thing, because it clears the air for parents and child. Once it's done, it's done, the lesson is learned and everyone can move on to other things.)

Note what we are focusing on here: behavior. At least at first, Joe can feel as defiant and antisocial as he wants to as long as he keeps it to himself. But he will be forced to act the same way as his more sociable peers in at least some respects. He can have his extra alone time if he needs it, maybe keep his talisman with him if he needs it (though I wouldn't be averse to using it as an incentive for good behavior). But he will not behave uncivilly to people and he will learn to dress up his less palatable desires in tactful form like everyone else does.

Start with behavior...and feelings will follow. That's because the human mind wants to be on the same page. Few people like to do things they think are wrong or stupid. And if they can't make sure their acts fit their beliefs, they will change their beliefs to fit their acts.

In other words, someone who does not see why greeting people instead of ignoring them makes sense, maybe thinking "It's such a waste of time and he knows I like him anyway," when forced to do so will start thinking "Hey, it's a good thing to greet someone because then he knows I'm not mad at him and I'm showing I think he's important. Greeting is good!"

Another reason that will happen quickly is that when Joe learns to greet other kids - they will start greeting him in return, hopefully with something other than spitballs and insults. And when Joe experiences the pleasure of being treated courteously by his peers, perhaps for the first time, he will see why it's good to act courteously to others.

Next post: Back to rewards and punishments....

NT who can use social skills training

These are about as NSFW (Not Safe For Work) as language gets:

Hat tip: Emily, whom I have now known for 118 months and who accepted my offer to spend the rest of my life with her 54 months ago today.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wanted: Mutual Understanding


I just got off the line less than an hour ago at Lorin Neikirk's radio talk show about Asperger Syndrome. Her guest host, Pamela Stoltman, a Nationally Certified Assisted Living Director and a Nationally Certified Activity Director, gave some excellent ideas for how NTs can understand Aspies better:

1. We Aspies have, by definition, many things in common. But every Aspie is different, just as every human being is different. Each of us responds to his/her situation in his/her own way. And that means each of us responds to others, including NTs, in his/her own way.

2. Aspies, like many if not most other people, have some situations we have difficulty dealing with. If an Aspie is visibly or audibly upset with a situation, such as something you are saying, back off. If you do not, the situation will only escalate.

(That is good advice for Aspies - and NTs - when dealing with NTs, too. For example, if you [male or female] are taking a woman out on a date and suggest a particular bar and grill to stop off at, and she really doesn't want to go in there, don't press the issue. For all you know her first love may have sadistically dumped her there, or she may have been groped and nearly raped in the back. It may be difficult for her to express that, and you may not yet be close enough to her to rate a full explanation. But you need to accept it.)

3. Aspies may feel it necessary to leave a situation. It doesn't necessarily mean they're seeking power or control; they may just be unable to handle it. Please understand and respect it appropriately.

Aspies can easily experience sensory overload. As I pointed out, a defining feature of AS is: "one at a time". Aspies' minds handle things one at a time. Especially if things are coming at an Aspie from multiple sources (say several people trying to talk to him/her at once) or if you're asking the Aspie to deal with several things at once, that can be a problem.

Also understand that Aspies, like most introverts, have what I call a "social fuel gauge". Extroverts are in effect refueled by social contact. Introverts, and especially Aspies, find social contact a drain. Remember last time you were on the road and found your gauge pointing too close to the E for comfort? Did you say to yourself "Oh, I'll just stop off for gas at a convenient time" or was it more like "Mission Number One: Find a gas station now!" Me, too.

Well, that's how it is for Aspies in the social world: we need to go off and fill up right away. It's not personal, and probably power and control are the last things on our minds at the time.

Lorin and I had an excellent discussion on mutual understanding. In particular, we should have a set of dual resources, both to help NTs understand Aspies and to help Aspies understand NTs. Among other things, as Stephen Covey has pointed out in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to seek first to understand, then to be understood. NTs will be much more likely to work to understand Aspies if they see we are making an effort to understand them - and vice versa of course.

Lorin said that being an Aspie is like being in a country where they don't speak a foreign language, but rather even though they speak English 40% of the words mean something else. I completely agree, and that models one of the most important communication issues: people on both sides think they're communicating, so misunderstandings can be blamed on personal obtuseness, stubbornness or other personal problems. Since NTs have a frame of reference with many other NTs, but relatively few other Aspies, guess who tends to get blamed?

Lorin made another point. She said that Aspies tend to be the ones who know there is a problem and to be the ones who are trying to reach across the divide. I agree up to a point. There are many conscious Aspies who, because we have been forced to carefully consider our and others' communication styles, can go the extra mile.

However, there are many other Aspies - especially but not only the undiagnosed ones - for whom the story is different. Unfortunately, AS (and autism) often brings rigidity and inflexibility. I believe that one of the most important initial limitations of autism/AS is a much reduced likelihood, compared to NTs, of recognizing even the fact of differing communication styles. Among other things, since Aspies have difficulty reading nonverbal cues, we can be slower to know that there is a problem in a given interaction than is an NT.

Also, since Aspies tend to grow up alone and friendless, we have much less experience of the social world, and thus much less knowledge of even the fact that different people communicate differently. We may take it for granted that everyone thinks the same way, because we have more difficulty understanding how people can feel differently from the way we do in the same situation.

We need to overcome that, because it can easily become a vicious cycle. The less we understand others and the more we behave accordingly, the more people will avoid us, the more rejections we will receive and the less experience we will get in communication - not to mention with possibly a bit of bitterness and hostility toward the world. I think a joint effort by the more empathic Aspies and some NTs would very much help acculturate other Aspies, just as, say, earlier Jewish immigrants to the United States, with the assistance of a few Gentiles, helped orient later Jews to life in America.

Fortunately, thanks to Aspies' common eye for detail, once we know what to look for we can pick up subtle details, learn what works and what doesn't and turn it into a virtuous cycle. We can also build our language skills so we can understand our own needs and then articulate them to NTs.

We just need to commit ourselves to building common ground on which autists, Aspies and NTs can live, work and play.

What do you think?

PS: Lorin's excellent series has a Part 3: Communication. Check it out!